Empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy says, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Empathy says, “I feel some of the incredible pain you’re feeling.”
This past week, our youth group at church began a 30-day journey/quest to live differently — by working through a daily devotional, making a variety of personal sacrifices to raise money for those in need, and participating in some “empathy challenges.” This journey is timely, as I know that there are people around the globe engaging in an assortment of “denials of self” during this Lenten season.
For the first week, our students were challenged to take at least one cold shower and sleep on the floor for at least one night. I thought that those were great ideas for our middle-to-upper class kids, who, like me, live in comfortable homes with ample, hot running water and probably sleep in snug, soft beds every night. I took a cold shower the next morning and — wow! — that was my fastest shower ever, I’m pretty sure! As I stepped onto my tiled bathroom floor and wrapped myself in a warm, clean towel, the empathy challenge ended fairly abruptly, but for those previous few minutes, I had had a small taste of what a majority of the world experiences regularly — if they even get to bathe that day at all. Small challenge — big dividend.
Empathy is something that I was taught at a young age, and something that I pray about often — asking God to “break my heart for what breaks His” (to quote Hillsong’s “Hosanna”). I remember my mom sharing the following story with me. (She is, by the way, one of the most empathetic and “heart-for-others” persons I have ever met.)
My parents were divorced when I was very young. During one of the weekends that my older brother and I were with my dad, we got snowed in for several extra days. My mom was feeling very sad and lonely, but she told me that she drove to the local veterans’ hospital to visit with those in far more severe circumstances. She recounted asking one man, who had lost both arms serving our country, if she could get anything for him? He replied that all he wanted was “a Philly cheesesteak” because the hospital food was disgusting. She left to buy him one downtown (we lived in DC at the time), returned, and fed it to him bit by bit. Later, as she was leaving, the amazed nurse told her that that man had not eaten anything in two weeks, and they had been force-feeding him. That story came rushing back to me this week as we were learning about empathy….
How about you? Are you not only “rejoicing with those who rejoice” (which sometimes has its own challenges) but also “weeping with those who weep”? (Romans 12:15) If only we would lift up our eyes or open our ears, we would see and hear that we are surrounded by people needing empathy — and hope.
Here are a few suggestions — by no means an exhaustive list. In fact, please feel free to share more ideas in the comments, or discuss other empathy ideas with friends and family in your spheres of influence. But let’s not just talk — let’s do!
- Babysit for a single parent so that he or she can get a much-needed break.
- Sit for a few hours with someone with dementia — showing genuine interest in what’s being said (sometimes repeatedly).
- If you’re handy, offer 2-3 hours of your time to repair things for someone who doesn’t have the means to repay you.
- Spend time with an elderly person, a teenager, or someone who lives alone, and truly listen to their stories.
- Volunteer in your local community or go on an international missions’ trip.
- Visit a prison, nursing home, homeless shelter, or hospital — somewhere out of your comfort zone.
As you do something for someone else, you will find that your own concerns lessen. Empathy is a great “cure” for some depression — as you get outside of yourself and your own “navel-gazing” — as they say. While making yourself feel better is certainly NOT the goal, it does create a “win-win” as you serve others in their time of need.
God said it best in Isaiah 58:10-11 ~
“And if you give yourself to the hungry
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness
And your gloom will become like midday.
“And the Lord will continually guide you,
And satisfy your desire in scorched places,
And give strength to your bones;
And you will be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”
As I close this post on empathy, I am reminded that today marks the five-year anniversary of the sudden passing of my dear friend John, who was also the wonderful husband of my former college roommate. He collapsed while on a spring break run through the college campus where he was a law professor, leaving behind his beautiful wife and four amazing kids…. I invite you to follow Maria’s faith journey at https://mariacarroll.blog. She’s a phenomenal writer, and an inspiration.
Until next time! Go and “give yourself”!
Remember. Celebrate. Trust.